Chinese Room and the Cogito
Cogito ergo sum is perhaps the most abused three-word phrase in our contemporary intellectual sphere, so much so that most of us no longer bothered to read further on the subject and what Descartes really meant. “I think therefore I am” has been recycled over and over by changing the verb into every other activity, from shopping to tweeting. All these has of course one underlying assumption, a false reading of the Cartesian subject as a substantial subject. Truth be told, the mind-body split did not come from Descartes at all — the idea has obviously been around since the pre-Socratic era (why else would we have the narratives of heaven and hell?). The true Cartesian revolution is in fact the opposite one: that of a total desubstantialized subject.
This does not mean, again, a subject desubstantialized of of a body and becoming a free-flowing mind, a (mis)reading found everywhere today in the intellectual sphere, and especially in the area of third-wave cybernetic research. Among the most fiercest proponents of this version of Descartes is none other than John Searle, the proponent of the famous Chinese Room argument. Unknowingly for Searle, however, the Chinese Room argument is, in fact, at one point, an ultimately Cartesian paradox.
What does the res cogitans, the thinking substance, mean, then, if not the common misreading of it as a declaration of a subject of pure thought? Here, it is crucial to look at what kind of thinking the cogito is first formulated under. The thinking that brought upon the cogito is none other than pure doubt — the doubting of reality and my existence within it. This doubt is irreducible, so much so that, in what may pass as a rather desperate move, the doubt itself becomes the only positive proof of the thing that I doubt — I exist only insofar as I doubt my existence. Rather than a substance of pure thought (“that can be downloaded into computers”, as Hans Moravec put it, etc…), the Cartesian subjectivity is a void of pure self-doubt.
(It is of course true that, in Descartes, there is ultimately a mind-body duality: the subject does not depend on the world, res extensa, to truly exist. This is, however, not because they are two separate substances, but because the former is a precondition of the latter; because the cogito is a prior void around which res extensa can only emerge as such.)
Does John Searle not reproduce exactly same motive in his Chinese Room argument, but instead of doubting the true existence of his reality, he doubts the cognition of computer programs? The famous Cartesian doubt, “What if God is a liar” is here replaced by Searle’s “What if I ultimately do not understand the symbols with which I communicate, but only know its perfect grammar?” Of course, the path they take in the end is different: If Descartes were a Searlean, he would have claimed that he cannot prove his own existence; if Searle were a Cartesian, he would have acknowledged that it would not be possible for one to know grammar without knowing semantics, for ultimately meaning is generated from structure, as the Structuralists already have it.
A great answer to the Chinese Room argument, and so far the best, I think, is the systems reply, claiming that it is the whole room instead of the person that understands, because cognition could not be localized to a single source. This would be the true Cartesian revolution, that cognition is separate from any particular subject, and the true Lacanian experience of the subject as barred. Searle rejected this argument by saying that if the entire room is located inside the brain, that would not make a subject understand any more than he does, despite his being able to communicate — which, of course, presupposes an ideal subject that “truly understands.”
Here, Daniel Dennett’s reply is worth noting: Dennett claims that if such non-thinking-but-nevertheless-communicating subjects exist, they would be the ones surviving natural selection, hence we would all be “zombies”. Does this not perfectly mimic the humanists’ fear of the post-struturalist alienation of the subject from language? Dennett, perhaps rather unfortunately, then goes on to say that the Chinese Room is impossible because we are not zombies — which, again, presupposes an ideal, non-alienated subject.
Distributed cognition is where the barred subject takes its place in contemporary cybernetics, and this is, contrary to popular belief, ultimately a Cartesian move that fully separates cognition from its local basis, as the separation of mind from its carbon basis. It turns out that Descartes was not only the first Lacanian, as Žižek put it, but also the first third-wave posthumanist. It is a sad fact, thus, that leaders in the field of cybernetics overlook this fact and, in both sides of the argument, tend to return to Aristotelian ideals, to illusions of wholeness.